Disability Sport Info

The Paralympic Games: Empowering or disempowering?

March 08, 2022 Dr Chris Brown Season 1 Episode 7
Disability Sport Info
The Paralympic Games: Empowering or disempowering?
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

In this bitesize episode, I am joined by Dr Danielle Peers to critically assess the potential for the Paralympic Games to provide empowerment or disempowerment for disabled people.

This episode is from a longer episode called, 'The Paralympic Games: Legacies and Empowerment', which is available to listen in full via the following link: https://disabilitysportinfo.buzzsprout.com/1901085/9691398 

Thanks for listening to the Disability Sport Info show!

Please email disabilitysportinfo@gmail.com to share your feedback. I'd love to hear from you.

Transcript of Disability Sport Info episode, ‘The Paralympic Games: Empowering or disempowering?’



Speaker: CB: Dr Christopher Brown (Presenter – University of Hertfordshire, UK) 

Speaker: DP: Dr Danielle Peers (Participant – University of Alberta, Canada)


Speaker: CB                        Time: 0:30

In this episode, we will critically assess the empowerment potential of the Paralympic Games: is the Paralympic Games a source of empowerment or disempowerment for disabled people? To help us consider this question, I’m delighted to welcome Assistant Professor Dr Danielle Peers to the show, who will be discussing the literature on the empowerment potential of the Paralympic Games. Dr Danielle Peers is a renowned expert in the field and is a former Paralympian herself, having represented Canada in wheelchair basketball, winning a bronze at the Athens Paralympics in 2004. Danielle, welcome to the show, and thanks for joining me today to discuss the empowerment potential of the Paralympic Games. 

I think it's fair to say the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) is keen to push the idea of the Paralympics as having the ability to empower disabled people and to affect positive changes for disability in society. But there are some who question whether the Paralympics is really as empowering as the IPC and others suggest. So, to start off, I and my listeners would be keen to understand: what do we mean by empowerment or disempowerment when discussing the Paralympic Games? And in what ways can the Paralympic Games empower or disempower disabled people?


Speaker: DP                        Time: 1:40

When we can think about empowerment, we kind of want to think about it in multiple levels. So on the one we tend to conflate sometimes what's good for individual athletes, what's good for the collective of Paralympic athletes, and what’s sort of good or empowering for disabled people in general? So when talking about empowerment at the individual level, I like to think about something Foucault would call ‘degrees of freedom’. So one way to think about that is what are the range of choices an individual has in their life? What are the kinds of different ways that we act, think, be as individuals? What’s sort of our possible range? And so I think it is very possible, at the individual level, to think that particular Paralympic athletes are likely, sometimes, feeling empowered by their Paralympic journey, right? It’s very possible that they have new career opportunities opened. That people who may not have had opportunities to travel, for example, may have access to that through Parasport. And the people who may have felt isolated in this small community may have met other disabled people and found, potentially, a disability consciousness through that, or a sense of community. So I don’t want to take away the ways that people's individual life chances may be bettered by their experiences as an athlete. I certainly have experienced some of those things myself. 

But also, I think anytime you're dealing with elite sport, you're dealing with an incredibly disciplinary regime, right? I mean, as an athlete, and as a team athlete, I can speak to just how much of your life is controlled by that team, by the coaches, by the programme, the things you're not allowed to do. 90% of your time is dictated by someone else. I have a kind of impairment that can be made worse by overexertion. And despite having agreements about what I would be doing based on what would not harm me long term, those were rarely recognised when a game needed to be won. There's just so many times when we get set up in a situation where it felt like, actually, as an athlete, my degrees of freedom when I was an athlete were incredibly limited! You know, I didn't attend my grandma's funeral because I wasn’t allowed to, you know, go home from tournaments, those of the kind of things that also restrict our choices. So I think at the individual level we can talk some empowerment some disempowerment in making decisions. 

But I think what I'm more talking about is at the collective level. So when we think about the collective of Paralympic athletes, what I’m talking about when we think about empowerment is, to what degree do athletes have agency within their own lives in sports? To what degree to disabled athletes get to make decisions about what ball size they play with, the rules of the game with the kinds of structures they’re playing within, with the classification systems and when those change, right? The kind of the world of Parasport around them, to what degree do they make changes? And this, of course, I’m drawing off the wider disability rights movement when we talk about the difference between organisations for disabled people and organisations by disabled people, right? Where a bunch of people, who are not disabled themselves, have started organisations to quote unquote, ‘help’ disabled people. These are charities, the people who have full control and often are paid good money to run these organisations are actually not disabled people themselves. And there’s some questions as to whether these organisations actually increase the life chances and possibilities or empower in any way disabled people. And the Paralympic Committee has a long history and I think, continued history, of being an organisation for disabled people and not by disabled people. And in, fact, the leadership that gets heroized, often, about those who started the Paralympic Movement and built it, people who get credit for that often we're not giving credit to any disabled people and disabled athletes who, you know, had a pretty significant role in the development of their sports. We erase them from history, but also, they've often been pushed out, held out, actively fought against them being in positions of power within the Paralympic Movement. So, until the Paralympic Movement basically has a requirement that at least 50% of the leadership are disabled, it will always be an organisation for, and it will always be non-disabled people being paid and having the power to make decisions for disabled people who often don't have a lot of agency in their own lives and in sports. 

And then the last question is, basically, does the Paralympic Movement empower disabled people in general? And I think on that level, it is a resounding no. I think the evidence is quite strong that the Paralympic Movement, the support of a handful of elite athletes, has not for the most part increased the life chances of disabled people globally. And I think there's a good argument against, even within cities that have held the Paralympic Games, often hate crimes against disabled people have gone up. In the case of London, for example, the Paralympic Movement, IPC, has taken on sponsors that have created disability in massive numbers, and that have continued to oppress, and actually been organisations whose entire job is to oppress disabled people, in many ways, if we take Atos as an example in the case of London. So I think I would argue a resounding no to the Paralympic Movement being a force of good in disabled people's lives globally.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 6:52

Some really interesting content there, Danielle, I think there's lots of avenues I'd like to explore. First of all, you have a strong conviction that the Paralympic Games isn't empowering for disabled people, generally. I was wondering what evidence we have in the literature to support this view. Are you able to briefly discuss the evidence we have to support this position?


Speaker: DP                        Time: 7:11

I’ve certainly written on this before but if we look at even like some of the major sponsors for the London Games, we know that there were massive protests by disabled communities around two sponsors in particular, Atos, who at the time of funding the Paralympic Games and London putting a lot of money into it, was cutting disability supports for disabled people across England. There's certainly a lot of research articulating and giving evidence for leading to death and incredible lowering of life opportunities, life chances for thousands, if not more, disabled people. Atos didn't only work in England; you can see the same kinds of things happening now in Australia. So taking on sponsors whose, essentially, job it is to delimit the life chances of disabled people and allow states to not support disability rights is, I think, pretty atrocious. There's also taking on sponsors who were the culprits who owned the companies who were in charge of the Bhopal massacre, which is a massacre that happened, a massive chemical incident that happened in India, and that caused incredible amounts of disability and also death in that community and have never been properly supported or recognised. And, again, the Paralympics have decided to keep these on. So I think there's a sort of pretty robust evidence about that they're taking money from and in support from organisations who are definitely not in the business of bettering the lives of disabled people. But on a more global level when we think about, like how the Paralympics has enlarged the relationship with the International Olympic Committee and their desire to create a sort of sellable Olympic Games, has diminished, significantly, the number of classifications and this has not been evenly distributed. The classifications that have been taken away are generally those that involve people who have more significant impairments, and certainly David Howe is someone who has written more extensively on this than I have, but to be extent that the IPC has, I’d say for years and decades, pushed out those with intellectual of disabilities from the Paralympic games and the Paralympic Movement more generally. Really pushed against, I’d say, against the vast majority of disabled people. So when we think about even who has a disability in the world context, the Paralympics serves an incredibly narrow percentage of that. And I think an increasingly narrowing percentage of the kinds of impairment types, let alone we're sort of dealing with elite members of that group and often members of the group who can afford expensive equipment. So it becomes kind of, I’d sort of argue a freakshow of a particular sellable form of disability. The idea of inspiration as overcoming and this idea is essentially that individuals can overcome any kind of barriers in their way to be successful, and the impact of that is that we're not actually looking at removing the barriers and the incredible kinds of violence, attitudinal problems, policy problems, architectural problems. A really significant difference and really harmful one between the sort of, ‘oh, look! Look at those people who have all these resources and often minimal impairment, single impairment types, very narrow range of impairment types, look at how they can overcome everything, disabled people can overcome. We don't need to give them support; we can cut back on the kinds of accessibility initiatives we're doing because they can simply overcome’. And, in the end, that harms the vast majority of disabled people for whom our inaccessible, uncaring, and ablest societies harm on a daily basis.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 10:52

Again, some really interesting content, and multiple threads I'd like to explore if we had more time for this discussion. But unfortunately, we don't have enough time to talk about all of those things.

I’m really interested in your discussion about the increasing marginalisation of athletes with severe impairments in the Paralympics, and you've explained why this is the case. I’d like to focus now on your thoughts about the marketing campaign in the UK by Channel Four to promote the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. For London, there was a strong focus on positioning Paralympians as superhumans, while for Rio, Channel Four focused on the achievements of disabled people with a range of different impairments, focusing on the notion of ‘yes we can’. Both marketing campaigns were praised, but there were also criticisms, particularly from some disability activists and commentators. Please can you explain your thoughts on these campaigns and also explain to our listeners what these criticisms were?


Speaker: DP                        Time: 11:45

So, I think the first thing I want to say is that there's a way of looking at this, which is, are the Paralympics bad or good? Are they disempowering or are they empowering? I’m much more interested in the question, to what degree are the Paralympics and these particular campaigns useful and dangerous? And so it's much less helpful, I think, to try and categorise these things as sort of one thing or the other, right?


Speaker: CB                        Time: 12:08

So trying to avoid binary classifications. 


Speaker: DP                        Time: 12:10

Yeah. Of course I do this, not because I want to throw all Parasport under the bus. I actually think there’s a big difference between ‘are the Paralympic Games empowering?’ or ‘can Parasport be? Or disability sport be empowering?’. Those are two entirely separate questions. Yeah, any more than the Olympics somehow represents all of sport, for non-disabled sport. There are all kinds of issues at the Olympic level. The big thing about these kinds of campaigns are, yeah, so they drew a lot of interest, people were sort of excited about it, all this sort of thing. They may have drawn more people to the Paralympic Games, they may have been useful in these ways. But certainly it's frustrating the degree to which people who were running those campaigns. I mean, there's been writing for 34 years on things like inspiration porn, things like supercripping, and the ways that this can be just incredibly harmful for the most disabled people. What's really interesting about supercrip narratives is that they do two things at the same time that seem opposite to many things. One thing they do is, by definition, they depoliticise, right? They focus on what bodies can do and they don't focus on what the barriers are to people participating. And so the thing is two things at the same time. The first is it lowers expectations around disabled people. So this idea if you look in the superhumans video, you have like people breaking world records and running, and then in the very next shot, you have them like brushing their own teeth. Like in this weird way, like it absolutely really diminishes the incredible athletic accomplishments that people are having. Right? It's the same thing to break a world record as to brush one’s own teeth. So, yeah, it diminishes the actual achievements of people. It kind of lowers expectations in a weird way where it's sort of like, ‘wow! You brushed your own teeth!’. And also that if one doesn't brush one's own teeth somehow that has some sort of impact or statement on one's value. Right? So again, independence here becomes the most important kind of value at the heart of this, which for a lot of disabled people, interdependence is actually the valued and supported way of living. So, yeah, it depoliticises, it lowers expectations and it actually diminishes our accomplishments in really significant ways. But it also sort of ties the valuation of disabled people to this idea that they can achieve and they will overcome these kind of barriers to achieve these, to become Olympic athletes. And it means that people who do not do that, or who cannot do that, because of course this is structured around very limited ranges of disability, come to be blamed for their own dependence upon systems or dependence with other people. So, the superhuman campaign is almost the perfect example of all of that, right? With jazzy music thrown in! ‘Look at all the things that we can actually do! Amazing things, brushing our own teeth!’ I think this sort of like builds again this idea that disabled people are incapable and that and that the valuation comes when they can independently do things that are valued by non-disabled people, strikes me as a fundamental sort of, I mean, again, it would run counter to any kind of activist move that can ever possibly be made in the name of disability. And, indeed, here's where we go back to empowerment, any activist moves that have been done against the Paralympic Games and the Movement, or even within the Paralympic Movement, have been quickly squashed by the Paralympic Movement. Right? They're not actually interested in hearing what disabled activists have to say about how to empower disabled people, or what activists within the Paralympic Movement have to say about how to make the Paralympic Movement more accountable, more empowering, more affirming for disabled people.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 15:57

For London 2012, for the first time in 32 years, the BBC were not broadcasting the Paralympics. Instead it was Channel Four. And Channel Four made a big effort to get as many eyeballs and as much focus on the coverage as possible. So when we’re considering the superhuman campaign, who are these adverts actually aimed at? Are these  adverts targeted at non-disabled people, first and foremost, in order to get as many people watching the event as possible? And do you think there is an increasingly close relationship between the Olympic Games, as an event, and the Paralympic Games, as an event? And if the Paralympic Games is moving closer towards the Olympic Games as an event, does this have an impact on the empowerment potential0 of the Paralympic games, do you think?


Speaker: DP                        Time: 16:38

Yeah. This is where it’s again helpful to detach what is empowering for the Paralympic Movement, is potentially different to what is empowering for Paralympic athletes as a class, which is definitely  different to what is empowering for disabled people.  Which is definitely attached differently to what is empowering the particular disabled athletes, right? So were these campaigns good for empowering the Paralympic Movement? Yeah, probably! They brought in money, all of those things, right. Great for the Paralympic Movement but, again, the Paralympic Movement is not run by disabled people for the most part. Right? These are the people who are benefiting off from this, this kind of success. So it was great for I would say, we have to think of the IPC like the IOC, as a corporation. We need to think of it as something that is money driven. The Olympics’ primary purpose is not about empowerment, right!? I mean, the IOC and IPC have banned activist articulations by athletes at the Games. This is an organisation that I think is foundationally against movements for social change, right? The world order, the corporations making billions of dollars, this is in the best interest of the Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee, not in the best interest of most disabled people, the vast majority of disabled people. Certain Paralympians, particularly those who did well in London and were from the UK, I’m sure benefited greatly from the greater visibility. Again, that broadcasting did not broadcast all sports equally, right. There are particular kinds of athletes that we're going to get access to that limelight and celebration. And so they may have been empowered by it. But that's actually quite a different thing to say. So the Paralympics. I mean, the metaphor I use is, essentially, can you imagine feminists, a radical feminist organisation that was really for empowering women, selling calendars of porn to make money? Right? Yeah, great. They made lots of money. They sold lots a calendars, great, but like they did it by throwing some significant principles. Yeah, porn can be great and can be empowering but probably not the kind that’s going to be used to sell at a mass level. So I think it's similar, right? We're going to use these things that disabled people and disabled activists have been very clear are harmful, for the purpose of increasing the empowerment of a Movement, which is not equitable to the empowerment of a people, so I just think we need to keep those things separate. 

So when we talk about the IPC and the IOC, the IPC’s increasingly going to become this corporate entity. It has always been led by non-disabled people. There have been some disabled leaders within it when we think of its history. So I think the more aligned it becomes with the IOC, certainly some folks like Eli Wolff have argued the importance of no longer having two Games. And you can just imagine what is going to be cut if those two Games were ever to merge. it's not going to be Men’s 100 metre wheelchair track, let me put it that way! So, increasingly, as it moves away from a participatory, multi-disability model to a selling arm of the Olympics model, the more it is going to undermine any kind of funding of those kinds of other sports at a grassroots level, and that's what I care about. I actually don’t care what happens. I don't think the Paralympics or Olympics will ever be either forces or spaces of major social change! Any serious Olympic scholar will tell you the same thing, right!? I mean, the critical scholarship is significant, right? There's a lot of critiques. All of those critiques of the Olympic model, Committee, everything with the Olympics, hold identically true about the Paralympics! Right. Somehow those scholars spare the Paralympics the exact same critiques.

So I think we really need to be holding the Paralympics accountable in the way that we hold the Olympics. But the only reason that sport scholars haven't, is because there's this sheen of, they’re empowering disabled people. That somehow the Olympics are about corporate interests, and the Paralympics are somehow about social change. And I think that has to disappear. We have to hold them accountable. And we have to critique them, because if there's any hope of the Paralympics actually becoming something that could be a positive force, then we need to do this work. And I think where my investments lie, is that unfortunately, these things trickle down. So the kinds of things that get funded in a country like Canada in terms of disability sport, are those that go to the Paralympics. They get funded more if they do well at the Paralympics. And so the kinds of changes that are incredibly ableist at that level trickle down to impact every disability sport opportunity that exists in our country, and I'm assuming many others as well. And so there's a celebration of going to this model like the Olympics. Like ‘Paralympians will be paid the same amount for a medal as Olympians are’, you know, and there's a celebration of that, and I think that is terrible. Yeah, great for the individual Paralympians; that's great. But increasingly imagining that display sports intention is to gain medals at the Paralympic level is terrible. I think it’s terrible for the Olympics too. Why are we designing our entire sports systems around .1% of athletes?


Speaker: CB                        Time: 22:19

You’ve already touched upon this point when answering some of the other questions I’ve posed, but I was wondering if we could just focus specifically on the role of technology in Paralympic sports, and whether that is a source of empowerment or disempowerment for disabled people?


Speaker: DP                        Time: 22:33

When you come in and think about the larger question of Paralympic sport, there are a couple of things going on. In some sports, by definition, things are always gonna be won by the richest countries and by the richest athletes, right? That there are particular sports in which if you cannot afford incredibly expensive technology, and remember, some of this technology is trademarked and not everyone has access to it. You have this incredible divide that has already existed around Parasport in terms of the kinds of funding people have for accessible infrastructure and things like that, that is just being multiplied by the kinds of ways that technology drives capacity within specific sports, right. So that's at play. So it's definitely a force of inequity. So that's great. I mean, if you want to do the Paralympic Committee should be using all these billions they’re getting from corporations to equally fund each country to ensure that their top athletes have the same access to technology. Like, if the discourse of justice and empowerment that the Paralympic Movement uses were in any way actually real, that would be the easiest possible policy to put into place! Right? But of course they don’t. Because it was never about that. 

And then I think we have this sort of idea of like, whether the technology is sexy, right? So the selling of particular sports around this technology is really interesting. And one of the things I find most interesting about it, if you look at like the history books written on the Paralympics by non-disabled people, always you'll have this thing where you’ll notice the only pictures are people that you can recognise as being disabled. So even when they use people with visual impairments, they'll only choose the sports where there's a specific blindfold being used or something! So people have to be made legible as disabled before they can be understood as a Paralympic athlete. And so one of the bonuses of technology is that it does this thing where it makes someone legible as disabled, but in a way that can be sold and packaged in these sexy ways, that a blindfold can't necessarily do, right? 

So, yeah, I think it does these two things that make it more sellable. If you were to look at, you know, as Howe's articulated, like athletes with cerebral palsy running, there's no technology and if you just take a still shot, disability is not necessarily visible on bodies, so that is not a sellable thing. And this is where my argument has been one of my argument has been, is that to some degree we're still using kind of freak show techniques, where we want to heighten and, in some ways, exaggerate the visibility of disability, to market our own bodies, to make it a gawkable feature. So I think technology is not in itself a problem, but I think there's all kinds of ways that within the kinds of political structure and problems we’re in, it’s being leveraged in ways that increase the kinds of inequities and the maldistribution of opportunity and empowerment, as opposed to using it in ways that could potentially have the opposite effect.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 25:42

It’s been great chatting to you today, Danielle. It's been really interesting to learn more about the empowerment discussion. Lots of different topics have been covered. And I know I've learned a lot as a result of this discussion, and I hope you, Listener, have also taken some insights from our chat today. 

So all there’s left for me to do is to say thank you, Danielle, for taking the time to speak with me today. It's been really interesting, like I said, and I really look forward to catching up with you soon. Thanks very much. 


Speaker: DP                        Time: 26:08



*** Discussion ends ***


Speaker: CB                        Time: 22:19

That's all we have time for, Listener. Thank you for listening to this episode. Stay tuned for the next episode. Until then, goodbye. 




What do we mean by empowerment/disempowerment?
Marginalisation of athletes
Marketing of the Paralympic Games
Technology in Paralympic sport